Last Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Obama had explicitly told Congress that they would be responsible for that outcome if it did in fact result from a continued push for sanctions legislation. He also issued the stronger warning that that effort could ultimately lead to war, saying that “Congress will have to own” those consequences, as well.
From Obama’s remarks it was difficult to see precisely how he envisioned war resulting from the sanctions efforts, or even whom he thought would initiate it. However, it has been clear for some time that war has also been perceived or at least publicly described by Iranian officials as a viable option.
In recent months, representatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have boasted of unconfirmed improvements in their weapons systems, often declaring that the nation’s military readiness is such that it could sink US ships in the Persian Gulf or go toe-to-toe with Israel. Even higher ranking Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have maintained a habit of referring to the US and other Western powers as enemies, and of accusing them of trying to bring Iran “to its knees” through economic sanctions and similar measures.
Regardless of whether Iranian officials see themselves as the instigators or defenders in a war against the West, their commentary evokes definite antipathy toward those powers, which far exceeds the tone of Western commentary in support of new sanctions legislation or a more aggressive policy toward the Islamic Republic.
There are also differences between Iran and the West in terms of the factual content of criticisms of the opposite party. Some members of Congress who maintain a skeptical outlet toward US-Iran relations point to the nation’s perennial presence at the top of the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror, or to its well-publicized record of human rights abuses, and to the imprisonment of innocent American citizens in Iran.
Tehran, by contrast, makes frequent attempts to paint the US as guilty of equivalent human rights abuses, but these are generally based on faulty evidence, misrepresentations, or outright lies. In one recent example, Iran’s Global Center to Support Human Rights issued a report claiming, among other things, that the US had personally engineered the Ebola virus in 1975 as part of an effort to commit genocide against blacks.
For opponents of the regime, these various rhetorical incidents make it difficult to accept the Obama administration’s implication that Congress would be at fault for a breakdown in talks between the two nations. Indeed, many of those who question Obama’s approach to negotiations point to the two previously missed deadlines and the lack of progress on key points of discussion as evidence that Tehran has little to no interest in actually cooperating with Western powers.
On that view, it would not necessarily take new sanctions legislation to cause a breakdown in talks or in broader US-Iran relations, as the regime could easily find other pretenses. This view is arguably supported by any of the Iranian narratives employed against the US, and by their practical effects on Iranian society.
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the Iranian Foreign Ministry did not condemn the attackers clearly but also several provincial representatives of the Iranian regime welcomed the attack.
The Times of Israel reported on Monday that in turn, 2,000 Iranians gathered outside of the French embassy in Tehran chanting “death to France” and calling for the French ambassador to be expelled from the country.
Some might find this incident to be eerily reminiscent of the 1979 hostage-taking at the US embassy by supporters of the then-new clerical regime. This was the first clash between the US and the Islamic Republic, and the first modern clash between the world and political fundamentalism. And the demonstration against France may be seen as indicating that the same impulses that led to that clash are still alive within Iran.
And Iranian resentment in response to Charlie Hebdo has not been directed only against French nationals or against the actual contents of the paper. The Jerusalem Post points out that the Iranian judiciary banned the newspaper Mardom-e Emrooz after just three weeks in operation, simply because it published a picture of American actor George Clooney wearing a “Je suis Charlie” button in order to express solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attack.
But Tehran’s actions against the West and against pro-Western voices in its own country are not new to the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo. They have been ongoing throughout the history of the Islamic Republic and throughout the period of negotiations with the West, during which time several citizens or former residents of the United States have been imprisoned by Iran on unsubstantiated charges of espionage or collusion with foreign governments, or for such crimes as supporting the practice of a non-Muslim religion.
The latter situation is the one faced by Saeed Abedini, who has been in prison so far for more than two years of an eight year sentence because of his participation in the house church movement in Iran. On Monday, the Journal Broadcast Group reported that Abedini’s wife, who lives in Boise, Idaho with the couple’s two young children, had written a letter to President Obama requesting to meet with him when he visits the city on Wednesday.
The request evokes the criticism that Obama has variously received from legislators and other Americans who feel he has not done enough to secure the Iranian-American pastor’s release. This in turn reflects on the broader criticism that Obama is overly concerned about stoking Iranian aggression and spoiling the nuclear talks – an impulse that some say is behind his resistance to the non-binding sanctions legislation currently being considered by the US Congress.